How to transform fire/EMS through the business principles of the Grateful Dead

10 principles the band followed to make the business end of their long, strange trip successful


Commissioner Jared Renshaw and Chief (ret.) Anthony Correia present “How to Transform the Fire/EMS Service Through the Principles of The Grateful Dead” on July 28 at Fire-Rescue International 2021 in Charlotte, N.C. Register or learn more here.

“Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

While these lyrics from the Grateful Dead’s 1974 hit “Scarlet Begonias” are up to interpretation, I read them as looking toward a successful business model, one that first began in with the band’s formation in 1965 and has lasted to the present day.

In Dr. Barry Barnes’ book, “Everything I Learned About Business, I Learned from the Grateful Dead,” he outlines 10 principles that the band embraced, followed and implemented to make the business end of their long, strange trip successful:

“Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
“Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” (Photo/Wikipedia)
  1. Master strategic improvisation
  2. Live your values
  3. Be kind to your customers
  4. Share your content
  5. Create a business tribe
  6. Insource
  7. Innovate constantly
  8. Transform through leadership
  9. Share the power
  10. Exploit the experience economy.

A quick review of the list shows many similarities between this list and fire department missions, visions and goals. After all, we often hear the phrase “look outside the box” as guidance for problem-solving and developing innovative ideas for the fire and emergency services. Looking outside the box was something the Dead clearly understood.

Fire and EMS agencies are facing unprecedented times – civil unrest, budget cuts, staffing shortages and a pandemic. Now more than ever, we must expand beyond the “box” and look for innovative ways to keep our agencies relevant and moving in a positive direction. With this in mind, let’s consider how to best apply each of the Grateful Dead’s 10 principles for business, with a quote from the book to get us started for each principle.

1. Master strategic improvisation: “The ability to plan, act, and make adjustments in real time.” Fire department leaders must be aware of what their agency is facing, both internally and externally, and engage with these challenges and problems. Prolonged solutions can turn out to be a detriment, as issues can become more exacerbated and harder to mend. As our service needs change, we must evolve to meet this demand and possibly change the way in which we operate.

2. Live your values: “Embrace strong corporate values and socially conscious business practices because it’s the right thing to do.” Your agency’s mission statement, visions and goals must be fluid, adaptable and updated to meet the needs of your customers. You must have your personnel buy-in, and support them, to ensure that everyone in your department is operating in a similar fashion and working toward common achievable goals. As firefighters, we must hold ourselves to a high standard and be viewed as pillars in our community.

3. Be kind to your customers: “By offering high-quality products and services, and being responsive to their concerns, and they’ll be kind to you by becoming lifelong customers.” If a fire department is looked at as incompetent and in turmoil, all community support is lost. Once community support is lost, then any political support that was achieved will be sure to follow. No matter the call or event, we must be on our “A-game” at all times. Going above and beyond, on even the most routine or mundane responses, shows that a high level of service is being delivered no matter what.

4. Share your content: “In creative businesses, familiarity – rather than scarcity – creates value. Share your intellectual property, because the more people who know about your work, the more ways there will be to make money.” Be heavily involved in social media, on the internet and with public events. This gives you the chance to tell your story and educate others about who we are and what it is we do.

5. Create a business tribe: “Harness the power or consumer tribes to collaborate with your customers, improve performance, and boost profits.” Develop a network of community partners and other emergency services organizations that can help you provide a better service.

6. Insource: “Bringing as many business functions as possible in-house, increases creative control, and keeps customers happy.” This will allow you greater oversight, as well as the ability for your people to have more ownership, and maybe even explore other opportunities that they didn’t have before.

7. Innovate constantly: “… despite risks of failure and financial loss, in order to keep you ahead of the curve.” The fire and emergency services must continually evolve to keep up with the demands that are being placed on us. A profession that only went to fires had to adapt to respond to hazmat incidents, EMS and technical rescues. Now our focus is changing toward a perspective of being proactive instead of reactive, particularly with the implementation of community risk reduction and community paramedicine.

8. Transform through leadership: “[This] creates cohesiveness in an organization and inspires others to achieve greatness.” It allows department management to have those interactions with personnel who are outside of their normal duties, like participating in company level drills, riding apparatus, and engaging with them inside of the stations on a personal level around the kitchen table. These types of interactions show line personnel that their leaders are engaged and are supportive of them, not only as firefighters but as people. Which can influence and motivate.

9. Share the power: “Sharing leadership through horizontal organizational structures leads to better decision making and more loyal employees.” Empower those in your department to make recommendations, propose new ideas, and to develop and complete projects. This not only lessens the burden on management, but also gives others a sense of buy-in, as they will have an end result that they can be proud of and will be motivated to do more and influence others.

10. Exploit the experience economy: “Provide your customers with authentic experiences that improve their lives.” When we respond to any incident, no matter the size or complexity, someone may be having the worst day of their lives. They have called us to fix the problem. For us to be authentic, we need to be real people and get out from behind the badge. We need to be compassionate, understanding and put ourselves in their shoes for the moment. This type of interaction will leave a lasting impression.

A new perspective

The fire service has historically been, and continues to be, influenced by many concepts, disciplines and professions. The phrases “don’t reinvent the wheel” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” have been echoed throughout fire and emergency services for years. But as our world continues to change around us, the way we operate must also continue to do so. The 10 business principles of the Grateful Dead is not a one-size-fits-all approach but can serve as a guide for departments to have a new, refreshing perspective on how to increase their organizational performance.

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